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Israeli military to hold large-scale drill simulating widescale strike on Iran

During monthlong ‘Chariots of Fire’ exercise, air force will conduct maneuvers simulating attack on Iranian nuclear facilities; military ramps up list of wartime targets using AI

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: an F-16I jet at an airbase. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: an F-16I jet at an airbase. (Israel Defense Forces)

For the first time, the Israeli Air Force will practice for a widescale strike in Iran later this month, during the military’s major Chariots of Fire exercise, The Times of Israel has learned.

In light of growing uncertainty regarding a return by Iran to the 2015 nuclear deal, amid long-stalled negotiations with the United States, the Israel Defense Forces in the past year has ramped up its efforts to prepare a credible military threat against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

The large-scale air maneuvers, including a simulated attack on Iranian nuclear targets, will take place over the Mediterranean Sea during the fourth and final week of the monthlong exercise, starting May 29. The Chariots of Fire drill, which involves nearly all units of the IDF, has been focusing on training for fighting on Israel’s northern borders, including against the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

At the beginning of last year, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi announced he had instructed the military to begin drawing up fresh attack plans against Iran. By September, Kohavi said the army had “greatly accelerated” preparations for action against Tehran’s nuclear program.

Still, defense officials estimate that some aspects of the IAF’s strike plans, which are still in their early stages, could be ready within a short period of time, while others would take more than a year to become fully actionable.

In addition to having to find ways to strike Iranian facilities that are buried deep underground, requiring specialized munitions and tactics, the IAF will have to deal with increasingly sophisticated Iranian air defenses in order to conduct such a strike. The air force will also have to prepare for an expected retaliation against Israel by Iran and its allies throughout the region.

A cleric walks past Zolfaghar, top, and Dezful missiles displayed by the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, at Imam Khomeini grand mosque, in Tehran, Iran, Friday, January 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The upcoming drill is also expected to focus on preparing for and responding to such retaliation.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that “the price for tackling the Iranian challenge on a global or regional level is higher than it was a year ago and lower than it will be in a year.”

Gantz said Iran was just a “few weeks” away from accumulating sufficient fissile material for a bomb and was also working to finish the production and installation of 1,000 advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium, including at a new underground site at the Natanz nuclear facility.

Gantz is slated to meet with his American counterpart, Lloyd Austin, on Thursday at the Pentagon in Washington. Meanwhile, Michael Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), arrived in Israel on Tuesday for his first official visit.

Natanz, in Iran’s central Isfahan province, hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. (AP)

With AI, IDF ramps up its list of targets for wartime

The Times of Israel has also learned that the military’s list of enemy targets has grown by 400 percent after the implementation of new machine learning and other advanced computing capabilities that allow the army to continuously identify new targets even during a war.

The IDF mostly operates during wartime with a list of predetermined targets that Military Intelligence has identified, from rocket launching sites to headquarters, as well as enemy leaders themselves. The military believes using such a list helps reduce civilian casualties, as it can more accurately hit combatants and their assets.

An intelligence unit tasked with creating targets for fighting troops to strike, established some two years ago, has been using an advanced artificial intelligence system to generate new targets and recommend when best to attack them.

During the ongoing Chariots of Fire drill, the target-generating intel unit has been practicing supplying the air force and other fighting units with a constant stream of targets to strike, even amid the chaos of war.

Israeli troops are seen participating in the IDF’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ drill in northern Israel, in May 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military expects the 162nd Armor Division to be ready for fighting along the northern frontier, as well as invasion maneuvers. Unlike fighting in the Gaza Strip, which has relied heavily on air campaigns, a war in Lebanon would more than likely have to make use of a ground operation, according to recent assessments.

Gantz has previously warned that Israel’s list of targets for Lebanon is “bigger and more significant than the one for Gaza.”

During the exercise — scheduled to last through June 3 — troops have been practicing responding to sudden events in multiple theaters simultaneously, with a focus on defending the northern border, according to the IDF.

The new target-generating intel unit feeds the AI with massive amounts of data that Military Intelligence intercepts and collects, including from telephone calls, text messages, surveillance camera footage, satellite images, and a huge array of various sensors.

A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s Rimal residential district on May 20, 2021, during an Israeli bombardment on the Hamas-controlled enclave following rocket fire. (Bashar Taleb/AFP)

The system outputs recommendations on what sites to strike and when, which are then double-checked by the AI and a human operator. During quiet periods, the unit works to build up a massive database of targets for wartime. And during a period of escalation, the unit works closely with the air force and other fighting units to supply them with new targets and cater to more specific requests.

The military first made use of the unit during last year’s 11-day war in the Gaza Strip, allowing Military Intelligence to not only kill several dozen top terror operatives, but to do so with a smaller number of civilian casualties, according to defense officials.

Since using the AI, the military has managed to expand the number of targets it has ready to strike by some 400%.

To coordinate the military’s offensive efforts, based on the database of targets supplied by Military Intelligence, the IDF has established a division tasked with prioritizing and approving such missions.

Illustrative: A soldier from the IDF’s Military Intelligence unit works at a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)

Since its establishment in 2019, this division has directed the intel unit that generates the database of targets and controls the military’s attack plans, allowing the air force and various fighting units to hit thousands of targets a day in a potential war.

Military officials said during the war in Gaza last May that the division operated in synchronization with the units involved in the fighting with “extraordinary coordination.”

The Chariots of Fire drill is the military’s largest exercise in decades. It was postponed last May ahead of the war with terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

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